December 01, 2017

Ohio Resumes Capital Punishment With Execution of Ronald Phillips

Ronald Phillips

On July 26, 2017, Ohio executed its first death row prisoner since the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in 2014. To execute Mr. McGuire, the state paired the controversial lethal-injection drug midazolam with hydromorphone after being unable to obtain its preferred drug, pentobarbital. There was significant outcry after Mr. McGuire’s execution took 26 minutes and he appeared to gasp for air several times. Ohio subsequently rescheduled all pending executions while it worked to find a new drug combination.

In October 2016, Ohio settled on a three-drug combination of midazolam as a sedative, followed by a paralytic, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart. However, just three months later, a federal judge rejected the new execution protocol after finding that midazolam created “a substantial risk of serious harm” during the course of an execution. The Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed this decision and allowed Ohio’s use of the contested sedative, opening the door to Ronald Phillips’ execution. 

Mr. Phillips sought a stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court, raising a challenge to Ohio’s lethal injection protocol and arguing for relief based on his young age at the time of the crime. The stay was denied hours before Mr. Phillips’ execution. In dissent, Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg opined that Mr. Phillips and other Ohio prisoners should have a chance to pursue claims that the state’s execution protocol constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

A few months after Mr. McGuire’s 2014 execution, the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty released a report outlining numerous systemic problems with the state’s capital punishment system and gave detailed recommendations for making the system fairer, more reliable, and more just. The Task Force later wrote that “none of the most consequential recommendations have so far been adopted, allowing the serious, systemic problems inherent in Ohio’s capital punishment laws and practices to continue. More than three years have passed since we issued our report of 56 recommendations yet virtually nothing has changed.”

In November, Ohio carried out the execution of Gary Otte using the same protocol. The state is continuing its plans for additional executions, with 25 scheduled to take place between 2018 and 2022.